Dameion Robinson was playing chess with another inmate in the Shoe Unit--the most stringently regulated cell block at Minnesota's maximum-security prison--when he got called to the "bubble." At Oak Park Heights, as at other state correctional facilities, staffers are required to let inmates watch as they open legal mail to show that there's no tampering.
When Robinson arrived in the glassed-in room reserved for such proceedings, a guard handed him a manila envelope. The top sheet was a letter from his lawyer informing Robinson that on January 13, the state Supreme Court had upheld his June 1998 conviction for murder. Underneath it was the court's 17-page decision. "I just looked at it and I said, 'damn,'" he recalls. "I was preparing myself for them to overturn it. That's why it was such a big letdown."
Clutching the letter, Robinson went back to his cell. "I put it under my bed on top of my footlocker," he says. "I tried to cry, but it didn't work. No tears came out. Since then I've just felt real bitter, just wondering where to go from here. How am I going to dig my way out of this hole?"
He's still asking himself that question two weeks later as he sits down at a fake-wood conference table in an improbably sunny room normally used for resolving prison disciplinary matters. Huge windows on one side let guards keep an eye on the conversation; on the opposite wall a row of barred windows looks out on a stadium-sized open courtyard where a dozen inmates are stir-crazy enough to play football.
Robinson places the court decision in front of him, on top of the appeal bound in bright-blue heavy stock. Both documents are dog-eared, and Robinson smoothes out the edges as he lines up the little pile at a right angle to the table edge. He has spent the last two weeks poring over the paperwork, trying to figure out what happened at the high court--which tidbits of testimony from his two trials the justices might have puzzled over before they hammered out their ruling. "How they weigh [cases] out is so secretive," he says. "They never tell no one they weighed this or that. They have no set pattern they decide things on."
For a long time, Robinson's life seemed headed anywhere but a prison cell. His mother is a supervisor at a local health care facility. He has an older sister who is a registered nurse, a younger sister who is most of the way through a degree at the University of Minnesota, and a younger brother who works at a health club. They're in close contact with him and, he says, "they're just devastated."
Robinson describes himself as a motivated student right up until he graduated from Minneapolis's South High School in the mid-1980s. But his ambitions weren't academic: He dreamed of becoming a pro fighter. "My family all boxed, my dad and my uncles," he says. "And I could box. I was a good boxer." He trained at the Circle of Discipline on Lake Street and sparred with local champion Will Grigsby. "But then after that my life just..." His voice trails off. "I didn't start working. That's when I started getting in a lot of trouble being in the streets and hanging with the gang and that kind of thing. I was kind of just lost, maybe, not having enough direction. It was all right, it was fun, it was something to do."
The rest of the story embarrasses him. The wrong friends, the wrong drug, and here he is, confining his boxing to the prison gym. After more than a year and a half inside, Robinson has come to believe that most of the 370 men at Oak Park Heights did commit the crimes that landed them here. He has studied some of their cases in the facility's law library. That, and the advice of his attorneys, served to convince him that few convictions from the Hennepin County court system are ever overturned.
Still, he admits, he thought his appeal would be different. The justices would zero in on the strange coincidence at the core of his case--the fact that he was tried twice, for crimes the prosecution said had to have been committed by the same man, and that one jury sent him to prison for life while the other pronounced him not guilty.
In the first trial, for first-degree murder, Robinson was convicted of killing Derangle "Dino" Riley, an alleged drug dealer, in the summer of '97. Riley and Robinson had left a south Minneapolis party together; the next day Riley was found dead in his car with a slug from a .25 in his head. Another day later, according to forensic evidence, the same .25 was used to shoot two men during a robbery on the other side of the city. The victims in that incident told police they recognized one of the two suspects, a man named Johnny Edwards; Edwards in turn identified Robinson as the shooter. In the prosecution's words, the two cases together created "a seamless web" of damning evidence.